On our flight home from Tel Aviv to the U.S., I sat next to an orthodox rabbi who was very proud of Israel, a self-proclaimed Zionist. He was surprised to hear that my partner and I had just visited Israel/Palestine on our own, not with a tour group, and asked if we hadn’t been afraid of all the stabbings being done by Palestinians. I said we hadn’t seen any. His reply was telling. “See,” he said, “this uprising is not that big of a deal. The Israeli people just keep on going.”
Indeed they do. Or should I say that their government does? It keeps on going with its military occupation, its separation walls, illegal settlements, checkpoints, home demolitions, extrajudicial killings, arrests of children, apartheid system of laws and restrictions, tear-gas and rubber bullet suppression of popular dissent.
This is what we saw and heard about while we traveled recently in the West Bank – the actions and effects of the Israeli regime. While some have labeled the recent uprisings of Palestinian youths and the corresponding Israeli repression as a “third intifada,” that phrase seems inaccurate. Popular resistance seems a more apt phrase.
The term “intifada” focuses on the stone-throwers, and doesn’t address the reason for the uprising. It doesn’t speak to the ongoing violence of the Israeli settlers and military who are every day perpetrating intolerable crimes much more serious that stone throwing. It doesn’t give the context of the open air imprisonment and ongoing Nakba of Palestinians.
Moreover, what we witnessed in our short visit was not a single organized rebellion, but something more like the spontaneous reactions of young black Americans in Ferguson and Baltimore. The disturbances in the West Bank are not the planned actions of so-called terrorists, they are the outbursts of anger and hopelessness that comes from being daily abused by an occupying army and aggressive settlers and not seeing a future other than continued and worsening incarceration.
The realities of the occupation were everywhere we went. On the van from the airport in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we traveled on a modern highway bordered by walls and barbed wire that is for cars with yellow tags only (Israeli settlers), not for those with white tags (Palestinians). In Jerusalem, from Damascus Gate to almost every intersection in the old city, there were gangs of soldiers on duty, with their machine guns slung casually from their shoulders, checking out anyone who looked Arab.
As we moved about on buses, we went through a number of military checkpoints where soldiers got on the bus and young Palestinians were forced leave the bus to go through a security “cage.” In the Area C village of Al Aqaba, we saw the nearby army post and heard the bullets and missiles being fired off as part of their trainings and as a form of intimidation of the locals. In the village of Bil’in and the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, we saw the regular military dispersal of young people with tear gas and sound grenades.
We did not get to experience the military’s common use of skunk spray, thank god, though we did hear about it. Nor did we see the process of home demolitions or witness any killings by settlers, although settler violence was in the news daily, done with complete impunity and even the support of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF).
It is the military occupation, not the youth uprisings, that is meticulously planned. What the Israeli government wants in the West Bank, we were told, is to (a) collectively punish Palestinians into a “pacified” colonialized population; and (b) to push them from into smaller and smaller cantonized towns and cities where they can be surrounded with walls and military just as Gaza is today. “The idea is to drive people out,” said Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, professor at Bethlehem University.
The settlers are the front line for pushing out the Palestinians. In collaboration with the military, they establish outposts and settlements in Palestinian areas, then many of them initiate violence to make life intolerable for the natives who have lived there for many, many generations. In Hebron, settlers have been given property right in the middle of an historic Palestinian neighborhood.
Qumsiyeh sees this tactic in Hebron as a deliberate provocation. “It’s like taking 600 KKK members and putting them in the inner city of Atlanta amongst black people and protecting them with soldiers and letting them do whatever they want… They feel that God has called them to kick out the Palestinians.” He is more wary of settlers than the IOF itself. “The military is the tool of the settlers,” he says. “This is a settler colonial state.”
It is clearly a modern day version of the same kind of genocide and containment onto reservations that Native Americans suffered from another group of settlers, bent on fulfilling their God-given manifest destiny. Israel continues to illegally annex land from Palestinians, but at the same time excludes the people on the land from citizenship or human rights. As the saying goes, Zionists want to include “more land, less Arabs.”
To be clear, what is going on in Palestine is not a war, but an ethnic cleansing, built on a complete lack of rights for Palestinians and ongoing atrocities and massacres. It is one-sided: Israel has all the power. The media’s concern about the supposed terrorism of young people throwing stones and brandishing knives diverts attention from the truly massive terrorism conducted by the state of Israel. To say that Israel is acting in self-defense is a simply propaganda. It is the Palestinians who are attempting to defend themselves.
Qumsiyeh has written a book titled Popular Resistance in Palestine that chronicles the long history of such self-defense. Much of that self-defense is non-violent in nature, despite all the attention given to the stone throwers. Iyad Burnat, recent recipient of Tufts University’s prestigious James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice, Study, or Reporting of Nonviolent Conflict, is a prime example of such an approach.
Burnat says that Israel is deliberately trying to incite Palestinians to violence. While watching a TV report of Israeli soldiers going from classroom to classroom in an elementary school in Hebron, he said, “This is to scare kids. And they want this action against children to be broadcast. They want Palestinians to use guns.”
When asked about the violence of stone-throwing, Burnat says: “We used to meet the soldiers face to face. Always they started the violence. They made themselves criminal in the minds of the children. They pushed them to use stones. To throw stones at criminals is not a crime. The kids are angry. They want to do something.” In a book he is currently writing, Burnat characterizes the stone throwers as “our Davids,” and says their stones “can barely reach the Wall built inside our own country much less threaten Israel proper. They pose no threat other than symbolic.”
Even as he speaks, Burnat’s 3-year old son plays a game on the patio of pretending to throw a stone at an unseen enemy, and then running away, yelling “Soldier! Soldier!” It is a striking example of how the ongoing conflict with soldiers gets built right into the next generation. And how much of a challenge it will be to keep the resistance non-violent.
Thinking back to my encounter with the rabbi on the airplane, I am struck by how blind Israelis – and we Americans – seem to be about the realities on the West Bank and how the Zionist Israeli government has created and continues to foster the oppressive conditions for Palestinians, along with the ideology and control of information that goes with maintaining it. It seems impossible that the solution to this apartheid regime will come from within Israeli society itself. Almost everyone we met in the West Bank thought the only hope at this point is through international support of the BDS movement. And they still have hope that this will work.
What we are seeing now on the West Bank is not so much a unique intifada as yet another courageous expression of resistance to the occupation. The rabbi may have been right that Israelis just keep on going, but indeed so do the Palestinians.
Ken Jones is a retired professor of teacher education living in the Asheville, NC area. He just returned from a two-week trip to the West Bank.